The Fairtrade Foundation and the fair trade movement as a whole have done a lot to give a better life to producers in the developing world. But what of British farmers?

In a stark report unveiled this week at the Royal Show, Sir Stuart Hampson, president of the Royal Agricultural Society of England and chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, calls on retailers to help extend fair trade to British farmers and rescue them from the "deep-seated crisis" that has left the sector close to collapse.

In the report, entitled Differen­tiation: a Sustainable Future for UK Agriculture, Sir Stuart says super­market buying practices have played a key role in the decline of farming and that retailers should shoulder more responsibility for their sourcing policies.

"Supermarkets must accept their crucial role in conveying information about farming and the provenance of the products they sell, and crucially demonstrating that fair trade applies to UK farmers just as much as it does to third-world countries."

Government has to do its bit, by providing the regulatory framework for a successful farming sector and consumers need to understand that their food and drink purchasing decisions will determine the long-term viability of British farming, he says. Farmers, too, need to do more to help themselves by differentiating their produce in terms of quality, provenance, animal welfare and environmental stewardship. But it is retailers that are key to improving the fortunes of British farming, says Sir Stuart.

Robin Tapper, the National Farmers Union's head of food and farming, says he would definitely be interested in a 'fair trade for Britain' concept. "I'm not sure we'd want another mark, but the idea of fair trade as two separate words is appealing," he says. "Everyone talks of fair trade for developing countries and we support that, but we think that the same principles that apply to growers in Ghana should apply to dairy farmers in Cheshire. That means positive, sustainable dealings with farmers."

Many dairy farmers are unable to pay themselves a wage or to reinvest in their businesses because of falling milk prices, he says.

Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco's corporate and legal affairs director, agrees that the idea merits discussion, but adds: "I have two immediate questions. Would it work for UK farmers alongside a brand that is now so well established as representing food from the poorest countries? And would it improve returns once the costs of regulation and control were taken into account?"

There have already been moves by at least one supermarket chain to develop such a scheme. Asda has been in discussions with the Fairtrade Foundation about setting up a 'kitemark' for British-produced food. However, the talks have come to nothing so far because the foundation's focus is limited to the developing world. A spokesman says: "While British farmers are having a difficult time, they are not in our remit. We hope they get support, but it's down to the supermarkets to work on that."

If the idea does takes off, however, there is a danger of a proliferation of schemes, which could confuse consumers, he warns.

Despite Fairtrade's reservations, ethical consumerism represents a £4bn market. Provenance, animal welfare and environmental standards are on the public conscience. With a farming industry in crisis, some action is needed. As Sir Stuart says: "The actions of each of us today will determine whether future generations are able to appreciate England's green and pleasant land as we do."n